Chris Harris Jr. was one of only a few Broncos defenders having a great year.
The Denver Broncos beat the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round, but in the process, they lost cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to a torn ACL. The injury is an untimely one because the Broncos’ opponent this coming Sunday is the UGG-wearing quarterback of the New England Patriots, Tom Brady.
With outside linebacker Von Miller also out with an ACL tear, Harris was arguably the best player on the Broncos defense. Without Harris, the Broncos will need big performances from a few aging veterans and a rookie with a cast on his surgically repaired thumb.
No matter what the Broncos do, there is a significant drop-off from the cornerback that Pro Football Focus graded (subscription required) as the ninth-best in the league to any of the gaggle of replacement options. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Broncos allowed a QBR of 43.6 with Harris on the field and a 93.0 QBR in the 81 snaps without him.
It’s a tough blow to the Broncos to lose such a good player at this stage of the season, and the Patriots could change their plan of attack against them as a result. The Patriots may have planned to use the ground game that the Chargers successfully wielded to keep the score down against the Broncos, but they could now decide to open things up with a pass-heavy attack.
For competitive reasons, the Broncos may keep who will be the replacement for Harris a secret. Head coach John Fox wasn’t at liberty to disclose how the Broncos would replace him to the media on Monday.
"We're going to know long before you guys will know," Fox said according to Gary Caldwell of DenverBroncos.com, later elaborating, "It is really how they perform in practice and what we see on the practice field in preparation for New England. ... It's a long list, a long cast. If I knew right now I wouldn't say anyways."
Of course, the Broncos only have so many options to replace Harris on the roster. That leaves open the option that any or all of the Broncos' options—Champ Bailey, Quentin Jammer, Kayvon Webster, Tony Carter or Michael Huff—could get extra playing time as a result of Harris’ injury. The Broncos could even try to mix it up to keep to keep Brady from picking on a particular player.
A year ago, losing Harris wouldn’t have been as big a blow because Bailey and Carter were both playing well. Both could be in the mix to help the Broncos deal with the loss of Harris, but Carter hasn’t played significant snaps since Week 5, and Bailey has played a full game’s worth of snaps just once this season.
After Harris left the game against the Chargers, the Broncos opted to use a mix of Jammer and Bailey. The rookie Webster didn’t get into the mix but played significant snaps earlier this season while filling in for Bailey before breaking his right thumb.
Huff could also figure into the game plan, as he has been getting regular snaps at free safety over the last few games. Huff played more cornerback than safety for the Oakland Raiders in 2012 and fared well. That would become an option if free safety Rahim Moore can return to action this week.
Replacing Harris will be a challenge because he was the team’s primary slot cornerback. With Bailey injured to start the season, Harris played outside and moved down into the slot in nickel situations since that was an easier adjustment to make.
Slot cornerback is, in some ways, one of the hardest jobs on defense because the receiver can break sharply in either direction. There is a lot less time to react as a slot cornerback because the ball takes a lot less time to travel from the quarterback to his intended target.
Champ Bailey's decline has been an underrated story in what the Broncos hope is a storybook season.
The player most likely to take over for Harris in the slot is Champ Bailey. He’s been getting regular snaps for a few weeks now, he’s a veteran and the Broncos can then rotate some other options outside in nickel situations.
That is if Bailey can handle the full allotment of snaps. He has battled injuries all season and missed 11 games in three different chunks. Bailey has only been a part-time player when he’s been active this season with the exception of Week 6.
If Bailey is playing every down, the Patriots would be wise to test the veteran. Formerly great cornerbacks don’t typically forget good technique—they simply lose the ability to stick with younger, faster receivers.
Better play by Harris and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is likely what led to Bailey becoming the team’s nickel cornerback down the stretch, rather than his injury. If Bailey doesn’t see more snaps this week, a case can be made that he either is still battling an injury or has fallen from the top of his game quickly.
The good news for Bailey is he will have more safety support over the top than he would on the outside. The Patriots also lack legitimate players that can stretch the field from the slot, as neither Danny Amendola nor Julian Edelman is a deep threat.
Of all the players on the roster, Bailey makes the most sense given his track record. The Jacksonville Jaguars torched him in Week 6, but he has been OK since then. Of course, this could also be due to lack of exposure.
It’s possible the Broncos will limit Bailey to playing just on the outside or in the slot, but that leaves whatever spot he doesn’t fill open for competition this week. Bailey will likely be a key piece the Broncos use trying to replace Harris on Sunday in one way or another.
Against the Chargers, it was Quentin Jammer who got the extra snaps with Harris out. The Chargers proceeded to score quickly and easily by picking on Jammer—both when he lined up in the slot and outside.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription), Philip Rivers targeted Jammer five times, and he allowed three receptions for 95 yards and a touchdown, including catches of 16, 30 and 49 yards. Worse than allowing the receptions were the mental mistakes and poor technique Jammer exhibited.
Wide receiver Eddie Royal cut across the field for a 30-yard gain at the start of the fourth quarter with Jammer nearly stopping in the middle of the field and looking over his shoulder just as Rivers threw the ball.
“When Chris (Harris) went down, things started to unravel a little bit on the back end,” Broncos safety Mike Adams said, according to Caldwell. “(Jammer) gave up a big play, but he could bounce back. We’ve all had bad games before and we’ve all slipped up and done something to give up something before. He always bounces back.”
Jammer didn’t allow just one big play—he allowed three big plays. The second was a 16-yard touchdown catch by rookie receiver Keenan Allen and the third a 49-yard strike on 4th-and-5 to Allen. The latter play was likely the play that Adams referred to.
Of the three catches Jammer allowed, the longest came when he lined up outside, but two of them came when he covered the slot. Given the big plays Jammer allowed in both the slot and outside, the Broncos may opt to go with another player in the absence of Harris.
At 34, Jammer shouldn’t be making simple mental errors, and he certainly no longer has the athleticism to get away with poor technique. The Patriots are almost certainly going to go after him if he gets a chance at redemption.
When the Broncos needed a defensive back to play outside in the nickel when Bailey was hurt, they turned to rookie Kayvon Webster. In many ways, Denver drafted Webster to be Bailey’s replacement, and circumstances accelerated the timeline.
Webster played well at times, but like any rookie cornerback, he also struggled. In New England, Tom Brady targeted Webster seven times; he allowed six receptions for 58 yards, including four receptions to rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
After the game in New England, teams started picking on the rookie. The Chiefs threw in his direction seven times, the Titans eight and the Chargers eight before he injured his thumb. From Week 12 through 15, Webster allowed over 75 yards per game through the air while only playing about half of the defensive snaps.
The bigger problem for Webster could be his injured thumb. He was active last week and played on special teams but saw just one defensive snap as the team opted to go with Jammer. That could change this week if Webster can practice well despite having a cast on his right hand.
Playing with a cast is tough, but a rookie playing with a cast in a playoff game against Brady might be asking for trouble. Webster will have to prove he can be effective in practice for the Broncos to trust him.
Tony Carter fell out of favor early in the season, but he could get another opportunity with the Super Bowl on the line.
Considering how much Jammer struggled Sunday and that Webster is playing with a cast, the Broncos may have to turn back to Tony Carter, a key role player for the Broncos last season. Interestingly enough, he played more snaps than Bailey or Jammer in 2013.
Carter just hasn’t played meaningful snaps since Week 5, and the most action he has seen since then was in garbage time in Oakland in Week 17. Clearly the Broncos didn’t think Carter was a very good option, but they may have no choice to do back to him if Jammer and Webster don’t perform in practice.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave Carter the team’s worst coverage grade in 2013, despite him only playing 270 snaps. All the potential options to replace Harris are struggling, so Carter is really not that different from the alternatives.
The Broncos are in a tough spot, but if Carter has the best week of practice, he should get the opportunity to play.
It’s pretty safe to assume Bailey is going to be involved, but the Patriots would be smart to force the Broncos into their nickel package early to see which of Jammer, Webster or Carter is going to get the playing time or if there will be some type of rotation.
A good early game plan could be to attack the Broncos’ nickel package. Brady can simply attack Bailey and whoever else happens to be on the field to replace Harris. Many assume the Patriots will continue to try to run the ball against the Broncos, but waiting too long to exploit Denver’s weakened secondary would be a big mistake.
Considering the lack of quality options, using Michael Huff at cornerback might not be a bad idea for the Broncos. Huff has experience at free safety, strong safety and cornerback but has been in the rotation at for the Broncos at free safety because starter Rahim Moore is out with a leg injury.
Last season, the Oakland Raiders used Huff at cornerback due to injuries to both starting cornerbacks. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave Huff an overall grade of plus-2.4 with a negative-4.6 coverage grade for 14 games at cornerback.
However, Huff had five positively-graded games in coverage and five negatively-graded games with four that were neutral. Putting Huff at cornerback on the outside would be a wrinkle the Patriots might not expect, which could throw off their game plan if they decide to attack the Broncos through the air.
For Huff to be available to play cornerback, the Broncos need to get Moore back. Moore would reclaim his starting spot and Mike Adams could be used in the rotation, freeing up Huff to help the Broncos at cornerback. Even if Moore can't play every snap due to his injury, he might be able to be to take Huff's spot in the rotation.
Moore’s target return date was this Sunday at the earliest, so it remains unclear what kind of options the Broncos might have with Huff. Without Moore, the Broncos would have to rotate Omar Bolden or David Burton in at safety in place of Huff if they wanted to use him at cornerback. That’s not something the Broncos have shown very much willingness to do, and it’s what ultimately led to the signing of Huff in the first place.
The Broncos got a lot of pressure on Brady in late November, but the two players that sacked him three times are on injured reserve.
The Patriots would be crazy not to open things up against the Broncos early. All the talk about the Patriots has so far been about their running game and the emergence of running back LeGarrette Blount, but that’s just a testament to the Patriots becoming the type of team they need to be to win games.
When Brady played the Broncos in frigid temperatures in New England, he went 34-of-50 with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Brady will not have tight end Rob Gronkowski, but it also will not be 22 degrees with a wind chill of six degrees and a 22 mile per hour wind.
Denver sacked Brady three times in that game—two by Miller and the other time by defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, who is also on injured reserve. Miller stripped Brady on one of his sacks, which was one of the Patriots' six fumbles (three lost) in the game.
While the Patriots will certainly use the running game more than they did playing from a 24-0 hole, they should try to replicate what they accomplished in late November against Denver's secondary. Now that the Broncos are down Miller, Vickerson and Harris, the Patriots should be able to get big chunks through the air much the way the Chargers were able to in the fourth quarter last Sunday.
The Broncos have a lot of options to replace Harris, but replacing a guy like that is nearly impossible. They'll just have to survive without Harris, but it will not be the first time they've had to deal with a devastating injury to one of their best players.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NFL.com and the NFL Game Statistics Information System.